Sunday, January 18, 2009

exhibition review - Ngadhu, Ngulili, Ngeaninyagu. A personal History of Aboriginal Art in the Premier State

Exhibition information with images

This exhibition is the second statewide artistic survey curated by Djon Mundine that has been exhibited at Campbelltown Arts Center in recent years. Djon Mundine is one of the few curators who has both the expertise and first hand knowledge of the history and development of Aboriginal art in Australia to dare attempt such a broad and complex objective of a curatorial survey based on the simple premise of Aboriginal artists born in NSW.

As the title suggests, this exhibition is a personal selection from what would probably be thousands of Aboriginal artists that have connections both personal and artistic to the state of NSW. The show succeeds in showing the audience that the art of Aboriginal people in NSW is mature and significant, yet also contradictory and isolated from the more recognizable forms of what is known as Aboriginal art in Australia.

To attempt to define art from the region known as NSW today is to bring together many diverse nations that prior to colonisation had very different utilitarian practices that would today be classified as art or craft. Body painting, representational rock carving, dendrogliphs (wood carving), hand made fiber and organic textiles production all existed in diverse forms in NSW and the translation of these traditional knowledges into the subject matter and object based representations of contemporary Aboriginality shows that the process of constructing a unified statement as to its meaning is still in the process of defining itself.

An interesting way to begin is to compare and contrast this exhibition against the first of this series which was a survey of Queensland Aboriginal Artists. An obvious difference for me was the lack of political urgency in the subject matter of NSW as compared to their Queensland counterparts such as Richard Bell or Gordon Hookey. There is almost a sense of defeatism that lingers in the lack of overt political nature of many of the works in the exhibition or maybe it is the lack of a unified voice or shared common goal that is more prevalent among Aboriginal communities in "the premier state". The reasons for this can not be simply explained although one reason for there being a diversity of experiences is that access to different cultural perspectives other than the local or the dominant are more readily available to aboriginal people in NSW as compared to Aboriginal artists in remote communities and regional areas across Australia.

On a trip to Townsville in 2008 I was stunned at the level of malice directed against "southerners" in the local papers and on the radio. among mainstream community media, jokes about the stupidity of people in Sydney and Melbourne were prevalent and the reception among locals when being as introduced to some locals as being from Sydney was a barely concealed hostility. There was a sense of wasted privilege in the south or that we we were beholden to foreign agenda's that undermine the "real Australia" that regional and country communities across Australia strive so hard to preserve.

The History of NSW as recently shown in the documentary first australians shows that there are far more complex social arrangements than the master/slave or victor/victim paradigms that has often been presented as examples of the experiences of Aboriginal people in NSW through art, music and in literature.

The inclusion of film makers from NSW in this exhibition such as Jerry Bostock and Darlene Johnston highlights the prevalence of the representation of Aboriginal people in non traditional mediums and how this practice is far more suited to extrapolating on the complex webs of connections that make the prevalence of Aboriginal struggles for recognition so significant to the question of "is there a common aesthetic concern among Aboriginal art from NSW?"

One of the most interesting ideas that Djon Mundines essay ( premier state: First State, First People ) references is debates surrounding the use use of the color blue in an anthropological art theory context. The premise is that the color blue (or words for any particular color) do not exist in any Aboriginal languages and therefore did not exist in the art of Aboriginal people. Mundine succinctly neutralizes this idea as absurd as this fails to take into account the use of blue in feathers, shells, flora and numerous other organic "products" that were used in Aboriginal society. By this reasoning one would think that bower birds only decided to collect blue objects for their nests after colonisation. The extrapolation of this concept is an exhibition in itself yet this exhibition offers a tantalizing glimpse of this concept through the work of Elaine Russell, Mickey of Ulludulla, Gordon Syron, Bronwyn Bancroft and Jeffrey Samuels.

Much Like Djon Mundines most comprehensive and Protocol driven Aboriginal curatorial project "The Aboriginal memorial" lets hope these exhibitions are only the start of a series of localised surveys of the history of artistic practice by Aboriginal people of Australia that are instigated by Aboriginal curatorial initiatives and that will one day make a more cohesive picture for all of us of the extraordinary cultural significance of Aboriginal visual arts both within Australia and internationally.

Brook Andrew

Over the past decade Brook Andrew has developed a body of work that is diverse in its mediums yet consistent in its interrogation of Identity, perception and representation. Andrew's work is not "about" Aboriginality, it is an active engagement with how Aboriginality operates on visual, social, cultural and historical level in contemporary society. Andrew makes work that exists in an international context yet is strongly grounded in the local experience of being overly categorized and analysed by modern expectations held by non Indigenous agencies.

The tree in the Australian landscape has been subject to misinterpretation and appropriation ever since it was first depicted in Australian art. although the botanical drawings of Joseph banks are mostly faithful representations there were many artists that couldn't see the tree as it actually existed and painted European stylized trees into the Australian landscape in an effort to anglosize the representation of the landscape.

"Conventionally, the first artists to represent Australia accurately are held to be the impressionists. They, it is claimed, first depicted its light and open spaces. Why did it take 100 years, until the 1890s, to accomplish this simple feat? I have suggested (in White Aborigines, 1998) that the light and open spaces of impressionist paintings was more metaphorical than literal: it depicted a whitewashed Australia; free of both its Aboriginal and convict origins.

There were, of course, plenty of artists working in Australia before the impressionists. Bernard Smith, who repeats the impressionist myth, pointed out that one early colonial artist, John Glover, did a fairly good job at depicting the gum trees and light of Tasmania in the 1830s. He also prefigured them in the art of whitewashing. Glover was a free and wealthy immigrant, and one of the first professional artists to settle permanently in Australia. He depicted two types of Tasmanian scenes which befitted his position and romantic disposition: paintings of his estate which showed a glorious cultivated landscape, the picturesque achieved in the Antipodes, and depictions of a precolonial Tasmania showing Aborigines enjoying what he considered their primitive and colourful pastimes. He was sorry for their fate, but in his paintings they added cultural capital to his property and enterprise. They were his own local version of the Greek Arcadia which nurtured his and his fellow Englishmen's sense of civilization and destiny.

Ian McClean link to original

In the artwork YOUVEALWAYSWANTEDTOBEBLACK II Andrew references the stylistic patterning of the dendrogliphs that have been identified as key examples of the Wiradjuri nation of NSW. Andrew creates an allover background using the wall of the exhibition space to reference this dendroglyph patterning and in a way removes the historical baggage of the tree in Australian art from the context of painting and creates an installation that uses taxidermy species of native birds from Australia to complete the"picture".

The placement of taxidermy native birds attached to branches along this surface creates a contemporary representation of a the "tree" that is more personal and individual rather than subjective and removes us as as a viewer from the historical complacency of the representation of the landscape in Australian art.

Both the tree and the birds referenced in this artwork can also be considered as endangered in a ecological context, and this presents another dimension of reading that is critical the way many people prefer to "see" the cultural landscape that Andrew is creating.

That the actual locations of most of the trees that contain historical dendroglyphs are protected from public knowledge to ensure they are not vandalised or damaged is a sad fact of modern day cultural heritage. That the only way we can know about the many species of birds that exist and have previously existed is through the sterile ethnographic context of taxidermy also says a lot about the actual respect for this landscape that Australians continue to profess.

Bronwyn Bancroft

In 1981 the television series women of the sun brought the harsh realities of injustice that Aboriginal women faced into the consciousness of mainstream Australia for the first time. For the first time issues such as the stolen generations, the importance of land rights and the deplorable living conditions that government services created were brought to the attention of the mainstream media. In NSW in the seventies and eighties many Aboriginal people were sharing similar experiences of moving from the country to the urban centers of Sydney or Canberra and in many cases were the first generation of their families to be able to participate with institutions and educational facilities that had been denied to previous generations.

The works in this exhibition grandmothers country and the voices of the dead will never be silenced while ever their blood is within us are testament to the solidarity and unbreakable bonds among family that all Aboriginal people have faced when learning of the history of their ancestors in this state. prior to the 1967 referndum the state and federal governments (as well as local police, pastors, neighbors, concerned citizens etc...) attempted to break with the bonds of the Aboriginal family unit through policies such as the forced removal of children( subsequently creating the stolen generations) and the denial of being able to practice traditional culture openly in communities in NSW. Giving voices of the repressed is an apt way to describe the subject matter of many of Bancrofts work over the years as her practice is intricately woven with the role of women in contemporary Aboriginl society.

Bronwyns most recent paintings refer to the concept of identity in the age of DNA the interpretation of this historicalk information is often contested and only highlights the importance of family conections to land and cultural memories of place. These paintings also show a new direction in Aboriginal art byproviding a platform for painting to operate within the context of womens role in community as a facilitator of social relations.

The scientific investigation of identity that is available now through genetic testing places the confirmation of identity in a different context to those systems that have been used throughout the history of Aboriginal cultre. The process of the establishment of cultural identity using scientific means has useful but also complex ramifications for artistic investigations of identity.

Badger Bates

In 2008 Badger bates was selected as part of the statewide survey show Ngadhu, Ngulili, Ngeaninyagu curated by Djon Mundine, this exhibition emphasized the diversity of artistic production techniques that have always existed in New south Wales. Badgers work for this exhibition was a selection of over 20 Boomerangs that when displayed on the wall created a negative space of patterning that echoed the patterns on shield designs and dendroglphy (Tree marking) that is more familiar to the regions east of Bates hometown of Willcania however the influences of the symbolism and the utilitarian use of this material have been used by Bates in his extensive body of work.

The boomerang is more than likely the most internationally recognizable object that works as a representation of Australian Aboriginal culture in the world today. The history of the Boomerang is far from comprehensive and apart from the instructional cartoons of Lin Onus and several traditional pieces that depict it as both a utilitarian and as a ceremonial object, artworks that deal with the publicly available meanings and descriptions of the history of this object are few and far between. The horrifying labeling of some plastic Frisbees as boomerangs buy overseas producers shows that the cultural history of this object needs to be carefully managed by Aboriginal custodians.

The Boomerangs that Bates has produced for that exhibition are far different from the boomerangs that are mass marketed to tourists visiting Australia. The main differences being that they actually work and they do not break on the first throw. The boomerang is intricately bound with hunting and the majority of the three dimensional work produced by Bates is directly referencing the animals of his country – their uses as food but also of the parts of the animals that can be used for more ceremonial or utilitarian purposes.

The woodwork tradition that Bates has works in has been shaped by many forces sometimes out of necessity – sometimes for economic benefit yet the styles and techniques that Aboriginal people have used several of Bates sculptures use found pieces of hard wood which can accentuate the organic shape of the materials he is using. One of Bates most popular artworks is a tree branch that he sands down into the shape of the snake, creating amazingly lifelike representations of the serpent from the form that already exists as the branch.

Another interesting development that Bates has is the three dimensional sculpture of the kangaroo which on one side is shaped from a piece of wood but on the other has an X Ray style pattern of the internal organs made from recycled steel materials. This is literally a three dimensional version of the paintings that many people are familiar with and one that allows endless possibilities for other pieces of bates work use discarded tools and industrial equipment to produce the effect of Echidna quills or the claws of a bird.

An interesting cultural comparison can be made between the Boomerang as a representative of Aboriginal culture and to bagpipes as cultural representation of Scottish culture. It is interesting to note the controversy of the use of the Boomerang does not appear to match that of the use of the Didgeridoo. Apart from their obvious difference, (the boomerang is a weapon whereas a didgeridoo is a musical instrument). The cultural significance of the bagpipes is known as Scottish (another nation colonized by the British prior to the Aboriginal nations) yet it is increasingly used in military, political and civil ceremonies and circumstances internationally. Why don’t the same cultural protocols that surround the use of the didgeridoo apply to the Bagpipe player as well? Aboriginal Australia might be recognized internationally yet it is not "known" internationally.

The didgeridoo is the perfect aural symbol for the growing sense of ecological awareness developing internationally and in the same way as the bagpipes are used in formal and funerary ceremonial purposes in many countries outside Scotland the Aboriginal didgeridoo and boomerang need to be able to be shown in the ecological contexts around the world as well.

Bates artwork is also informed by his “real” job as a senior archeological consultant for National parks and wildlife in Broken Hill. The areas of western NSW are an area that doesn’t give up secrets easily, it was in 1974 that remains were found that threw the ideas about Aboriginal migration across the continent askew by providing radio carbon evidence of a burial ceremony at least 40 000 years ago in these areas. The evidence of this cultural history still remains today - that the actual locations of most of the trees that contain historical dendroglyphs are protected from public knowledge to ensure they are not vandalized or damaged is a sad fact of modern day cultural heritage.

Frances Belle Parker

Frances Belle Parkers installation Finding Ulgundahi uses an ordinary domestic appliance of the clothespeg as a marker for the identity of her people The Yaegl of the Clarence river in Northeastern NSW.

What at first looks like a knot of driftwood often found at the mouth of a river along the coastal region of NSW turns into an irregular concentric loop of hand inscribed clothes pages that taken on the whole, resembles shapes such as a coolamon or even the symbolism of western desert painting, however a literal interpretation of the shape of the work is not required. This work is about the connection to place and is a personal intervention into what is a largely unmapped area of artistic production in NSW.

"My art comes from the various aspects of my Aboriginal culture. In some ways it may seem to be traditional, but these have been combined with the contemporary aspects of today's society like materials, colours, etc. Most works combine the two aspects of my culture - tradition and contemporary urbanisation of the Aboriginals. Every piece of my art has a meaning or story to tell."

Since winning the Blake prize in 2000 Belle Parkers work has matured into a confident use of non traditional materials while still being grounded in an exploration in local identity. The work in this exhibition is an exciting development in the career of of a North Coast NSW artist.

Adam Hill

In this exhibition Adam Hill has made a stark departurefrom his more regnisable bold and colourful paintings and transformed his political subject matter to exhibit a photographic series of secnes of the backstreets in Redfern and as a couteroint a white wheelie bin painted with the faces of politicians of the previous howard government.

The documentary reportage style of the photographs is a refreshing new take on the overly relied ipon medium of paining to document the reality of the Aboriginal experiece. On first reading the subject matter could be alluding to people of mixed descent being labelled as "rubbish people" within the Aboriginal cummunity (a label on a simular par with "Southerners" in some parts of queensland. Another reading would be that the federal government represented by the (white) trash wheelie bin has negleted the heart of Redfern as depicted in the streetscapes surrounding the artists studio in Redfern.

Adam is a commited social activist, teacher of the yidaki and along with his role as artsit and this combination can produce results that are not easily absorbed into mainstream or the Aboriginal community. The media representation of Redfern and the block in particular is often focused on community disfunction

Darlene Johnson

The film two bob mermaid is a semi autobiagraphical account of issues confronting identity as an Aboriginal Australian in the social space of the local pool. Time spent at the local pool is a right of passage for many Australian teenagers yet there is an underlying social history of the pool that need to be taken into account when viwing the film and this is the segregation and aprthied that existed in NSW prioir to the Freedom rides initiated by acticist Charles Perkins. Aboriginal people in rural towns in NSW were banned from attending swimming pools as the white commiunity did not want to share their pools with and a central point of activism for the Aboriginal rights movement was the bringing to attention of the racist rules banning Aboriginal people using public facilities such as swimming pools

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